My kids were watching “Dora saves the mermaids” this morning. I noticed that the mermaids were decidedly multi-ethnic. Before that, we had watched “Ni-Hao, Kai-Lan,” a new Nickelodeon show about a young Chinese girl and her friends; some shows center on Chinese culture, and some are just fun. (Not quite as good as Sagwa, but, since they aren’t showing Sagwa re-runs anymore, it’ll do just fine.) “Little Bill” is another favorite series, also, sadly, only showing in re-runs.
We don’t really watch these shows because they’re “multiethnic” (Hispanic, Chinese, and African-American, respectively) and, therefore, some sort of check in the box for training the kids in political correctness. We watch them because they’re good entertainment, they’re educational, and they neither talk down to their audience nor push them to grow up too fast (like the Bratz dolls; I don’t care if they’re more ethnically correct than Barbie, there won’t be any in my house). But it got me thinking again: what is race and/or ethnic identity in this country? What will it be in another thirty years?
I came home from a fabric shop one day, and excitedly told my husband, “I found black mermaids!”
“Huh?” he said, unaware that we needed fabric with black mermaids on it.
“And some of them look kinda Hispanic, too!”
Continuing blank looks from my husband…
The fabric was something I had stumbled across while looking for quilt fabrics for my oldest daughter, who is black. Princesses, ballerinas… all mostly white with blond hair. As a brunette, excessive portrayal of blonds always kinda annoyed me. When I was young, my mom gave me a statue of Mary that her mother had given her. I gave it back, saying, “Look, Mary was definitely not blond with porcelain white skin, and certainly not this wispy thin. She was a Jewish woman with a household to run, strenuous chores to do, etc. She had to have had some muscle.”
Looking for homeschooling textbooks, I came across one company that offers reprints of Catholic school texts from the 50’s. I, personally, didn’t care for the materials… and especially not for the fact that practically all of the good boys and girls shown going to church, helping their moms, or playing outside were white, blond-haired, and blue-eyed. I really don’t think it was meant to be discriminatory, it was just the 50’s, but I’ll find something else, thanks.
So, when I decided to do a quilt for my oldest, I was determined to find something that showcased something distinctly African or, at least, wasn’t all blonds. She declared the mermaids acceptable, as long as we agreed that they were Princess Mermaids. Fine. Like anyone, she looks for similarities with other people. She loves seeing people wearing long locs. “Hey, mom, he’s got really long locs! Will mine get that long eventually?” She doesn’t seem to notice that this is a black hairstyle and that my pathetically straight hair could never be coaxed into it.
I don’t think, at six, that she particularly registers “black” as a race, except that we’ve tried to explain it to her some. We’ve talked about slavery while visiting Colonial Williamsburg several times, we’ve talked about the Tuskeegee Airmen while watching “Dogfights” on the Military Channel. She notices that people have different color skin, but makes no assumptions about what they’re like based on that fact.
When we were in the process of adopting our oldest, our agency had a class for all the prospective transracial adopters. The video they showed told us, “You have to move to a black neighborhood. Say goodbye to your church, because you need to go find a black one. You need to start subscribing to black magazines.” The threat was, even if it wasn’t directly stated, if you don’t do all these things, you will really mess your child up. (It also not-so-subtly assumed that the audience was all clueless racists living in gated white communities.) The adult adoptee in the film rhapsodized at length about learning to cook soul food and, thus, becoming “really” black. She also railed against those who thought she was Hispanic. Well, that would’ve included me, because she didn’t look black… she looked like there was a whole lot of something else in her background besides African, even if she totally ignored it. But it didn’t matter, apparently: one drop of black blood makes you black, right? And proper blacks really shouldn’t socialize with whites, or go to church with them, or read their magazines, right? Just ask the KKK.
Fine, we said, we’ll find her some black rolemodels: we named her after St. Josephine Bakhita from Sudan, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery but later said she’d forgive her kidnappers because their evil action brought her to Jesus (she eventually chose to become a nun). And how about Cardinal Arinze? He’s pretty cool, too. And we can tell her about the time Colin Powell came to talk while we were at the Naval Academy. Sure, we’ll explore black culture: we went to see Ladysmith Black Mambazo, we took the kids to an exhibit of Zimbabwean sculpture at the botanical gardens, and we’ve been to some African drumming and storytelling demonstrations. Fried chicken, fried okra, and watermelon? Sure, since the husband’s family is from Alabama, they love fried chicken and okra.
Our social worker got this funny look on her face, as if she wanted to say, “That isn’t quite what we mean…” Ok, then what is?
Is there only one “approved” way to be black in America? What does it mean if you’re biracial? Shouldn’t we be more concerned about the “content of our character” than the color of our skin? Yes, some people will see the skin color first… but why encourage them in their stupidity and prejudices?
My greatgrandparents were Slovak, Catholic, and poor. They were not exactly welcomed with open arms, either. Leaving behind starvation and virtual serfdom at home, they, like most immigrants, didn’t really have a totally free choice about coming to America. “Eeek! More papists! And uneducated ones, at that! Well, let them work in the coal mines; who cares about safety, then?” Several of my grandfather’s brothers and uncles died in the Pennsylvania coal mines. So, with no respect and no help, a bunch of women formed an insurance company: the Catholic Slovak Ladies’ Association. Gradually, the Slovaks worked their way into better jobs in manufacturing. And my grandparents made darned sure that my three uncles and my mother had the chance to go to college.
And now, my son is wearing his Slovak t-shirt today that I used to wear. It was made for the 75th anniversary of the Catholic Slovak Ladies’ Association, and declares, “Happiness is being Slovak!” My husband always rolls his eyes when he sees one of the kids wearing that shirt.
“But he isn’t Slovak, and neither was his big sister when she wore it!”
“I’m Slovak, and these are my children. So, by adoption if not by blood, they are Slovak.”
I don’t know how my kids will identify themselves in thirty years… I hope that we will have moved past that “please put yourself in one of the following boxes” thing. “Well, by blood I’m black, by adoption I’m Southern and Slovak, and my younger sister sparked a deep interest in China so I prefer Chinese food and art… what box is that?” I hope that, in another thirty years, we will judge people for scholarships and jobs by their talents, not by the color of their skin or by how they affect the college or office’s ethnic mix. I hope my kids will appreciate that, as Catholics, we have “family” all over the world, and that that is what really matters.
And so, my son wears his “happiness is being Slovak” t-shirt and sees no problem with it. And there are black, and Hispanic, and white mermaids on my daughter’s quilt. I hope she sees them all as beautiful in whatever color they were made, and imagines stories for them where they are all smart, loving, and talented.